LUKE — The owner of the shuttered Luke paper mill agreed Thursday to pay $650,000 to clean up toxic pollutants that have been seeping into the North Branch of the Potomac River.
To resolve a pair of federal lawsuits over the pollution, Verso Corp. and Verso Luke LLC signed a consent decree with the Potomac Riverkeeper Network, which was represented by the Environmental Integrity Project and the Maryland Department of the Environment.
“This long-awaited resolution of an even longer-standing pollution problem was hard won, but, as always in protecting our precious river, was well worth the struggle,” said Brent Walls, the Upper Potomac riverkeeper, in a press release.
The pollutants include black liquor, a byproduct of the paper pulping process, and contaminants associated with coal ash waste. The settlement requires Verso to investigate and identify the sources and the extent of the contamination, including the area around a million-gallon storage tank that at one time held black liquor.
The company must also develop and implement a plan to clean up the contamination so that public health and the environment, particularly the river, are protected.
Verso is also required to pump and treat contaminated groundwater, close a coal ash waste lagoon and conduct monthly water quality sampling in the river and groundwater for at least three years following all cleanup measures to make sure that pollution from the site is no longer harming the river.
“This consent decree requires an extensive, comprehensive cleanup and years of followup water quality monitoring to make sure the pollution stops, permanently,” said Natalie Cabrera, attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project.
Verso’s Luke paper mill closed in May 2019 after 131 years of operation. The company cited a decline in demand for the coated free-sheet paper produced at the mill, rising costs and foreign imports as its reasons for the closure.
A month earlier, a fisherman notified the Potomac Riverkeeper Network that black waste was leaking into the river and state authorities were contacted.
An investigation identified multiple potential sources of the black discharge that was occurring along the mill’s banks, along with pollutants from coal ash waste areas. According to Potomac Riverkeeper, the “tar-like gunk” is so acidic it could burn people who come in contact with it. The waste reportedly contains metals such as arsenic, mercury and lead and are toxic to aquatic life.
The Potomac Riverkeeper Network and the Environmental Integrity Project sent a notice of intent to sue Verso on Nov. 19, 2019, for creating an imminent endangerment under federal hazardous waste law. The lawsuit was filed March 24, 2020.
In partnership with Potomac Riverkeeper, Maryland’s attorney general and Maryland Department of the Environment filed a federal lawsuit against Verso on May 28, 2020.
“Verso repeatedly discharged toxic pulping liquor into Maryland’s waters,” said Attorney General Brian Frosh. “These repeated discharges degraded water quality and were harmful to fish and wildlife. Today’s settlement requires Verso to stop its discharges of pulping liquor, develop and implement a remediation plan, and pay a significant penalty to the state for its repeated violations.”
According to Frosh, the settlement would allow the future redevelopment of the site while allowing the investigation and remedial work to continue.
“This is a healthy shot in the arm for the Potomac River that has endured toxic leaks and a stiff penalty for the polluting company that failed to protect it,” said Department of the Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles. “Our enforcement settlement holds the polluter accountable for the cleanup and begins a new chapter of opportunity for beneficial reuse of the property to help the citizens and communities in the region.”